Liz Turrigiano is one of three behind the new brand – Esembly Baby. Liz shares with us the story of launching a cloth diaper brand after the success of Diaper Kind (a cloth diaper service in New York State). She brings with her over a year of cloth diapering experience into this story of the diaper, the detergent, and the ambition for the future.
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Co-Founder & CEO of Esembly baby
I am joined today with Liz from Esembly.
It’s Liz Turrigiano with Esembly.
Esembly is new to the market, but we as founders are not new to the space. In fact we have quite an extensive history with it.
So long story short, I left my advertising job in 2009 to launch a cloth diaper service in New York City with a fellow producer. My first baby was four weeks old and in hindsight, I have absolutely no idea what I was thinking. But being a born and raised New Yorker I had a passion for the community, and the environment, and the idea that I can work with a friend to create a business that served both was just too good to be true. In my postpartum haze, I did it, and together we created Diaper Kind. Over the course of 11 years, that company has serviced thousands of families, taught hundreds of cloth diapering 101 workshops, and washed literally millions of diapers.
It was really from that experience that Esembly was born, along with another baby that I had. But that’s a whole different story.
That explains a lot. As I look at your incredible website and just the marketing behind Esembly, that you were in advertising before.
I was going to ask. I was like, one of my low key questions was, “Where did you get this amazing marketing plan?” And that’s your skill set.
Oh yeah, okay. You do a fabulous job, such an envy of watching you advertise this company because I always see cloth diapering as being so collaborative and as you put out all of this beautiful content and work with people, I’m just like, this is doing so much for your brand but also for the entire space.
I love hearing that, thank you.
I am starting to hear more and more people, “ Oh I saw this ad for this brand, Esembly somewhere on the internet, and I was curious about cloth diapering.” So you are making such a big impact probably in ways you don’t even know and just being an incredible advertiser.
Oh my gosh, thank you so much. That means everything.
It’s a little thing I have been hearing and picking up as somebody in this space. So Esembly was started just this year, 2020? How did you get from Diaper Kind to Esembly?
Yeah I mean why did we start Esembly? Sometimes I don’t know. No, I think it’s a great question and I’ll be honest in telling you that I have two partners, Sarah and Marta. All three of us would say that creating a full product line was never in our plan. We stumbled into it. New York City is such a transient place, especially when it comes to people with young kids. So we found ourselves over the years doing so much consulting with cloth diapering families who were moving out to other states or the suburbs, who wanted advice on how to home launder. We started to become inspired by it.
So here we were with all this knowledge in diaper design and laundry science. And really had an insider view on what the wants and needs of modern parents in terms of cloth diapering were. We felt like we could use all of this acquired expertise that we had gained through the service to create a complete system to make these parents’ transition from service to self super easy and even fun. I am sure you’ve heard this, but so many new parents are overwhelmed and intimidated by cloth diapering and laundry is most often their biggest hang up. What we tell them is that at Diaper Kind we wash eighteen to twenty thousand diapers a week. If it were hard, we would be long out of business. We are not superheroes, it’s just laundry.
So is diaper kind still in business then?
Yes it is! Diaper Kind continues to grow and to thrive. So it’s like we are not working magic there. It’s just laundry, and you just need the right tools, the right instruction, and someone willing to offer you some assistance if you run into any issues. That’s what we set out to give them with Esembly.
We wanted to provide all of the products, the education, and the support under one brand so they didn’t have to go digging around to all of these different places. Do you want to hear something cool? When we were preparing to launch Esembly and needed to raise some money, we created a crowdfunding equity campaign and put the opportunity out there to our Diaper Kind families past and present. So many of them invested and are now partners in Esembly. Which, for us, is pure magic.
To have that community support is such an empowering feeling I could imagine.
It’s been really fun. They believed in us, they believed in the idea for Esembly, and they’ve just been everything from early prototype testing, to investing, to seeing us through to the launch. It’s been quite awesome.
This sounds like such a fun and incredible journey. We were chatting before about your product and you mentioned prefolds with Diaper Kind, and that Esembly is more of a fitted diaper. So why did you make that transition and decide that you are going to offer this fitted cover system for your Esembly over a prefold system that you had with Diaper Kind?
Creating Esembly was a whole evolution, you know. The way we wanted to differentiate ourselves from others is by creating a complete system. So we offer the organic diapers, the cloth friendly skin care, and the recycled storage bags, the detergent, the whole product. So that was like our one way to serve this community in a different way that is currently being done.
For the diapers themselves, that was another R&D experiment. When we were in the early stages of product research and development, we really leaned heavily on those Diaper Kind families. I had just had a baby, my second, and I would make prototypes and test formulations while he napped. Story of a working mother! Totally! Then I would send these really rough kitchen table samples out to Diaper Kind families for them to try and report back. At the same time, we were serving the hell out of these poor families. What we repeatedly kept hearing was that the three most important qualities of the diaper were trim fit, leak proof, and easy to wash.
Those became our design pillars. What we ended up with is a two sized, two piece diaper. Two sizes from birth to potty training, as opposed to one makes the diaper very trim and form fitting, which we knew families wanted. Two pieces, as opposed to one, meant that you were securing two different layers around the baby independently of one another, which makes it blow out proof. So as I am sure you know, newborn and baby poop is incredibly forceful and very sneaky, and it wants to find a way out. Hence all of the leaking with disposables. So the way our diaper works is if any mess were to escape the inner cotton layer it’s going to get caught by the outer.
The last component is washability. We chose highly washable and super absorbent organic cotton. Our outers and storage bags are all made from recycled plastic bottles. So that fabric is really sustainable and also super stretchy.
You’re not the only brand on the market who is using plastic bottles fabric, but you are the first one who I ‘ve had on the show. What is this? How do they do that? Are they melting down the plastic bottles and making yarn? Does it feel soft? How does it feel? Does it feel soft? Does it still feel like PUL?
Yes, but there are so many different ways to make PUL and TPU. So much of it is in the first step, which is making the fabric. Which has nothing to do with the lamination layer. You are just making the woven fabric. So for us, we worked with our team to design a fabric that was almost like spandex. We wanted it to be really soft and really stretchy because we wanted that outer to fit over the inner almost like worn in yoga pants.
If it’s a plastic yarn, does that mean there is a laminate on it, or is it the whole fabric?
After. So you are just basically making polyester. So after you weave the fabric, now you have this soft stretchy spandex, then it gets cold bond pressed to a thin layer of laminate. That’s what gives it that waterproofing.
Half of my brain though that maybe the entire fabric was unique and laminated, so thank you for clarifying. When I think about other brands that have the stretchy, soft TPU, it would be very similar to that experience that I may be thinking about.
I also wanted to say that I know to a lot of people listening, a two sized system can be kind of a turn off as a new parent. As a parent who has two different sized children, a two sized system is incredible. It’s a great choice to cloth diaper the whole range.
Absolutely! I think it just comes down to that formed fit. I have a background in technical design. If you stop and think, a diaper is meant to fit like a bra or bathing suit. Now imagine trying to design a really well fitting bra or bathing suit to fit a seven year old and a seventeen year old. You couldn’t. Do one size diapers work? Sure! There are many brands that have successful, beautiful, one sized diapers. But for us, when we were really looking for that form fitting, leak proof aspect, the two sized diaper just made the most sense. Like you said you’ve got two different babies, two different sizes. You save them, you pass them down. All of our diapers are made to last. You move out of size one, you set them aside, or pass them along to a friend or a cousin and move in to size two. I think it’s a compromise worth making.
It gives a really great fit. Especially when we are talking about fitted diapers which can get so bulky when they get into that one sized. They just give less than ideal fit on the smaller children, and then even a struggle on the larger children.
If a listener was listening and they have this fifteen pound child who is five month old what would you recommend?
We get that question a lot. We often say to go right into size two. If they are fifteen pounds or over, it’s not worth that investment to make. Even though the size one is the right size and will give that trimer fit. I think to get the most bang for your buck, go right into a size two. It will be a matter of a few weeks, before the baby will be filling it out. In the meantime you will just have a poofier booty. It doesn’t mean the diaper won’t function.
Is the size two kind of like a larger one size, in it has a lot of wearability in that babyhood to a toddler?
It starts to fit at about eighteen pounds. So for my kids that were teeny teeny tiny, my daughter was exactly a year, and my son was fourteen months before he fit into the size two.
My babies are eighteen pounds at about four months. So all sorts of changes and ages.
We get that question all of the time. How many months? How long? It ranges you really just don’t know. The good thing is that no matter what, we have yet to have a single baby outgrow size two before potty training. You kind of know that no matter what variants there is going to be and when you size out of one and into the other, you are still only going to need two from birth through potty training.
I find that 35 pounds is thrown on there, but often that a 40 pound child and a 35 pound child are structurally the same and the product is going to fit very similar. It’s just kind of a weird way we measure things.
I am so glad you brought that up because like you with two really big babies. We have some families that are sizing out of size ones at like four to six months and they are like, “Well what are we going to do? This baby’s never going to last in size twos.” And what we say is, A, eventually their growth slows down. B, even when they do continue to grow they don’t gain all that weight in their crotch. They get longer arms, they get bigger heads, they develop muscle. Like it’s not all happening between their knee caps and their belly button.
That’s such an obvious conversation, but we forget it though. As a mom at four months at 2 A.M. in the morning I can remember having a panic attack about, “Oh my God I am never going to be able to diaper my child ”. I knew he was going to be massive. But he slowed down. Sure he was forty pounds when he stopped. But I never had to buy Size 3 diapers. And he potty trained at three and a half. It’s pretty normal, they do adjust.
You were mentioning the fun fact about your fitted diaper that makes it easy to wash and easy to dry. You’ve sewn in extra channels, can you explain that to me? You do a much better job.
So at Diaper Kind, most families used prefolds and then in 2014 we introduced a fitted option. I would teach the 101 class and I would bust out that cotton rectangle and you would see their eyes would glaze over. They were like, “Nope. No way.” We worked with our factory to make a fitted. Because it was for a service where we were providing families with a hundred and sixty diapers, it had to be very utilitarian. There was nothing fancy about this fitted diaper. It was just twelve to fourteen layers of thick cotton, with elastic at the legs and a contour shape. Families loved them and we loved them. But we were washing them in industrial machines in piping hot water.
As we started to think about Esembly, we knew we wanted to use that contour shape because it was more intuitive and easier to approach. But we needed to find a way to make it more washable in a home machine. Where you know that you are not getting the mechanical action in the water to really get deep down into cleaning the core.
We worked with a technical designer, this amazing woman named Patty, who helped us figure out how we construct this diaper. So again it fits well, wears well, and it is also highly washable. If you look at the fitted, when you open up the diaper on the inside, we call it a butterfly insert. It’s two different pads that are tacked together, and then tacked to the body of the diaper in five different spots. You can actually go and stick your hands through and reach the other side. So what that does is the butterfly wings of the inserts sort of flap around in the wash and you can go through to the inner layers. It allows the detergent in the water and the air in the dryer to reach different parts of the inner through the wash and dry cycle. It makes them wash up better and dry more efficiently.
This kind of cloth diaper innovation is the whole reason I continue podcasting even long after potty training. Listening to you explain this is like, this is magic, this is beautiful, this is something that parents struggle with, and a new spin on it. Parents struggle with the dense layers of a fitted diaper and washing them. This sounds like you have figured out a way that might work for some parents to come across that drying and washing debacle.
Yes. To be honest, we really just stayed as true to the classic as possible.
It looks super classic here on the outside.
Yes! Because classic works. For eleven to twelve years of running a service people love basic prefolds and basic fitteds because they wash well, they hold up, and they just function. For us, it was like, well if it’s not broke, why are we going to go out on a limb and redesign and patent something. Ultimately we had something that’s working. We just need to fine tune it a little so that it works better.
You haven’t done anything crazy, but you have done something a little different that overcomes some of the challenges that I have heard about with fitted diapers. It’s kind of cool. I am looking at it as I am listening to you talk about it thinking, “Why haven’t we thought about this before.” Like oh yeah, this is obvious.
So washing. The other thing I have heard is that you have an incredible detergent product that you have created and that works amazing. That’s from your Diaper Kind days. You use the term clean rinsing on your website. What does that mean and why is clean rinsing important for parents?
So clean rinsing is very important when it comes to diaper detergent. What clean rinsing means is that it is free of any ingredient that lives on on the fabric after that final rinse. Some of the most popular of those ingredients are fragrance, fabric softener, and optical brighteners. Those are three commonly added ingredients to mainstream, commercial detergents. They are fabulous for washing regular clothes, but for diapers they problematic because they are these molecules that bind to the fabric, they stay on the surface, and then what they do is they give the ammonia and bacteria in the pee and the poop something to hold on to, making it harder and harder to wash out in future washes. It’s what leads to, in the industry there are so many terms like residue, build up, needing to strip.
Really what it comes down to is the ammonia and bacteria are holding on for dear life to these molecules that are attached to the fabric that you are putting on there in your detergent. So at Diaper Kind in 2009 when we launched, we did not want to go with a big chemical company. We hired a small company in Massachusetts that worked with us to specially formulate our detergent and construct our wash cycles.
That’s an entire industry I didn’t even know existed until this year. It’s a huge industry! I chatted with Dinobi Detergents in the summer, and she was also talking to me about finding the chemist, and working with somebody else. I didn’t even know! When people are making detergents, it’s not just an advertiser in a New York condo. It’s literally we’re reaching out to specialists to work with.
We hired a PHD in biochemical engineering and an enzymologist because everyone was telling us you needed enzymes to wash cloth diapers. We worked with them to put together our Diaper Kind wash routine. Once we locked it in mid 2010, it has remained unchanged since then. So for ten years it has been exactly the same. When we decided we wanted to create a diaper detergent for Esembly, we approached that same chemist. I said, “Hey Mark, how do we take everything that we did at Diaper Kind and just put it into a bag or bottle for people to use at home. “ He laughed and he said, “That’s insane. You can’t.”
I was thinking yeah, maybe this is easy. Maybe it’s really simple. That’s what I thought too. Nope! He kind of brushed me off and a week later we called him back and was like, “No no. We are serious. We want to do this.” He was like, “Alright.” We worked with him over the course of two years and brought in other people to assist on the project because it really was challenging. Oh wow, really? Yes it was! I don’t know anything about detergent, I should assume it’s challenging. It’s the right blend. We made it more challenging by saying that we wanted it to be this natural, mineral based product. Had we just approached him and said that we don’t care what you put in here, just make sure it cleans diapers, he would have said, “Fantastic. Here’s your formula.”
But we had all of these parameters on what ingredients we would and would not use, and how we wanted the wash cycle to be structured. It took about two years of lots of experimenting. I had my son at the time in diapers. This kid, I mean gosh, maybe there is some therapy or a lawsuit in my future. He suffered from a lot of diaper rash because of different products that we were testing on him. We know that it’s tried and tested on your own kin. Yes, perfectly I was testing the skin care formulations at the same time, so I had a lot of rash cream.
But we did end up landing on a mineral based detergent that power cleans the diapers through high alkalinity and a specific blend of anionic and ionic surfactants. Which completely reach and tackle the baby poop. This is gross to talk about. It is made up of high fat content of the baby’s diet, as well as the greases and creams that you are putting on this skin. You have lots of starch. You have heavy discoloration and a high bacterial content. There is a lot going on in that diaper, so you are really need to sort of attack it from a number of different ways. That’s our washing powder. We started selling it through Diaper Kind in 2017. We have been selling it for three to four years and yes, only recently launched it with Esembly this year.
Is it septic safe? Could a family use it if they were off grid?
I’ve seen these words; biodegradable, mineral based, so it’s probably right back into the river’s kind of okay?
Yep, exactly right. Awesome. That’s so cool. I am also seeing that you have a package. How long and how many loads of laundry do you get average out of one of these little packages?
So one bag of washing powder will last a family that is exclusively washing diapers with it, following our instructions, eight weeks. So you get two months out of a bag. That’s not bad! Yeah. I am doing a little math here in my head. That’s a good value. Now that I am thinking, especially for a product that is mineral based, that is not mainstream synthetic. This is why I have heard a lot of hype about it. It is always interesting to hear about what goes into a detergent. You have put a lot of time and energy into this whole brand.
We did and again we were so fortunate to have the service because it enabled us to take it slow. I mean my son was born at the very end of 2013 and we started while I was on maternity leave with him developing the products. So it took us seven years to get it to be ready to launch and so much of that was the branding that you see on our website. But we took it slow. We were not in a hurry. We knew what we wanted to achieve. We knew exactly what we wanted each product to do and we took our time getting there.
What do you love most about being in the cloth diaper industry, continuing to be in this business?
I am and I have always been extremely passionate about sustainability. So that right there is the obvious. But I think beyond that I really really love working with new and expecting parents. It is such a fun time in people’s lives. It’s overwhelming. It’s scary. But nothing brings me more joy than helping problem solve and simplify things for someone who is living through one of the most transformative times in their life. I have seen time and time again with new families that cloth diapering is aspirational. The pregnant parents approach it with excitement and hope and pride. I feel like if I can be part of them achieving that goal, really there is nothing better. I guess also, if I am being honest, I am a designer who loves textiles. So the cloth diaper business definitely scratches that itch.
You sound like a pretty multi passionate person. They all kind of blend together. I can see how you are where you are. It’s such a cool thing to see and to see this play out. You guys have been crushing it in some ways in that I have heard you are coming into Indigo in Canada and Target in the United States. What, to me, really feels like big goals. Do they feel like big goals to you?
They do! It feels crazy. You know when I think about the short term and long term; the short term is just get through this wild year. Oh yeah. Pandemic 2020 and launching a brand. Absolutely. We officially launched in March, literally a couple of weeks before New York City shut down. It’s been a ride. It’s been amazing, don’t get me wrong. But intense. We unexpectedly got a bunch of press from The Today Show and Forbes right after the shut down. So I am in a small city living quarters with a husband who is a sound designer working from home and two kids. Literally someone was like, “Forbes wants to interview you.” I did the interview with Forbes in my bathroom because it’s the only door in our apartment with a lock on it. I just knew my kids were going to be like clawing at the other side of the door. I am like please, this is so important. So the short term goal is just getting through this year. Then stepping back and taking a breath and looking back on everything that we learned along the way, and figuring out how to turn it into a killer 2021.
As you said, things have been going pretty bananas for us. Indigo approached us three or four months ago and said, “We love what you are doing. We would like to carry it.” We have had such a positive response from families in Canada to the brand but the cost of shipping is crazy. I am blown away that Indigo is going to carry cloth diapers. I am Canadian, and that’s like nuts. I can’t imagine it. And they approached us! It was amazing. Man, you’ve just stirred up the right press and it’s amazing. It’s beautiful. I am totally just in awe of this amazing work that you’ve done. And yeah, Canadian shipping… It’s outrageous! So Indigo is really going to help us with that. So we can just have our Canadian customers order through them. The best part about Indigo is their shipping policy. I often host giveaways on my channel and it’s cheaper for me to ship things internationally then to have a Canadian win it. It’s crazy here. Just a fun, wild ride. That’s what happens when you’re only thirty two million people in a country larger than the United States.
It’s been so cool to listen to you tell your story, Liz, about your cloth diaper brand, Diaper Kind to Esembly. It’s just so cool and I am so excited to see you come up on Indigo. Where can people find you and buy your products?
Indigo offically went live two weeks ago. So we are up on Indigo. There is an Esembly page on Indigo. Mainly customers reach us through our website, Esemblybaby.com. We have some cool tools on there, knowing that when parents are first exploring this option they really don’t know how many of each product they need or which product exactly they need. We worked with our web developer to create the Esembly System Portal. So a family can log in and answer a few questions that we ask. Then it walks them through each of the product categories from diapering to skin care to storage to laundry. And makes recommendations on products size and quantity based on the answers to their questions. It really helps them customize. It’s like a personal shopper helping them figure out exactly the items that they need. So any of the replenishables like the washing powder or the skin care; you can sign up for a subscription for that.
So Esembly with one ‘s’ and Esemblybaby.com. Thank you so much for taking the time today to chat with me Liz. Did you have anything else you would like to share with listeners? Otherwise I am about done with all of my questions and insights into your life.
Well thank you so much for having me. I have been following your podcast and we have so many families that have been like, I can’t believe you are going to be on that podcast. So it’s really an honor. I am really starstruck throughout this show so it goes both ways.
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